The Beachcomber

Re-creation of the First Hollow-Chambered Surfboard Now at Seaport

Greg Melega’s Replica of LBI Legend’s 1937 Board
By Jon Coen | May 24, 2019
Courtesy of: Greg Melega SURFING HISTORY PASSION: Greg Melega of Seafaring Woodcrafts recently built a 1930s-era wooden, hollow-chambered surfboard at the Tuckerton Seaport, a replica of LBI legend Richard Lisiewski's first board ever built and ridden in New Jersey.

So much of surfing goes back to a Californian named Tom Blake.

Born in 1902 and striking out to California alone as a youth, he was a distance swimmer, author, film stuntman and photographer. He also became friends with legendary Hawaiian Duke Kuhanomoku. Blake is credited for developing the surf fin and also the hollow chambered surfboard.

It was an article that he wrote in 1937 for Popular Mechanics about building a hollow wooden surfboard that helped spread the sport. It got surfers and tinkerers around the country working on their own surfboards that were much lighter than the heavy solid boards that predated it.

Beach Haven’s Greg Melega recently completed a wooden, Tom Blake-style kookbox at the Tuckerton Seaport. But there’s more to the local angle of this story.

One of those original, 1930s curious craftsmen was a young man in Riverside, New Jersey named Richard Lisiewski, who built a board and became the first surfer north of the Mason-Dixon line. As the legend goes, he drove it to Seaside and tried surfing for the first time. Then it blew off the car on the way home and was destroyed. Lisiewski built another. Minus that little technicality, it is preserved at Tuckerton Seaport’s New Jersey Surfing Museum as “the first” surfboard in the state.

Melega’s board is essentially a replica, built from the same blueprint that Richard built his 80 years ago.

Lisiewski went on to build hundreds of foam and fiberglass surfboards under the Matador label. He opened Brant Beach Surf Shop, which later became Brighton Beach Surf Shop, which still stands today, owned by his son Michael. His daughter, Caroline, authored the book Surfing LBI in 2002.

In those early pioneering days, that hollow-chambered wooden board became the standard for surfing and lifesaving. It has a revered place in history and today is referred to as a kookbox, also referred to a “coffin” or “cigar box.”

Fast-forward to the mid-2000s and 12-year-old Greg Melega from LBI’s South End trash-picked an old Linden surfboard. He brought it to get repaired at Brighton Beach Surf Shop.

“They were known to be the shop on LBI that put the most emphasis on surfboards, and still are. Richard brought me back into his shed stacked to the roof with 1960s logs,” recalled Melega, “I was intimidated, to say the least. Rich gave me a popcorn cup with sandpaper, cloth, and resin, then a five-minute shakedown on how to patch the holes myself. I was hooked on DIY from that moment on.”

As Melega got older, he would talk surf history with both Richard and Michael.

“Rich would tell jaw-dropping stories of dealing with California legends like Bing, Bahne and Hansen, convincing them that New Jersey not only had waves but surfers eager to buy their boards. He would talk about the head scratching business involved with starting and manufacturing Collier and Matador surfboards in the early years,” said Melega.

While studying environmental science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Melega and a friend started making handplanes for bodysurfing.

“I needed a shoulder surgery and did some life searching. I dropped out with a semester left, to go at it full time,” he said.

From handplanes, he went on to ancient Hawaiian-style bodyboards or paipos. He didn’t start using foam and fiberglass, as used in modern surfboards, for another four years because of the health effects of these toxic materials.

“I’ve been chasing the perfect marriage of traditional surfcraft and my own style of wave riding, using the consciousness that surfing brings me happiness by connecting with God through the ocean. If I use foam and glass, I do it as sustainably as possible, using resin derived from tree sap, and boards built strong to last a long time and not end up in our landfills.”

West Creek’s Randy Budd, who has surfed LBI since the 1970s, was also building boards of wood under the Pine Knot label. For several years, he taught a class at Tuckerton Seaport on building alaia (traditional Hawaiian flat, wooden surfcraft) but ironically found that wood affected his allergies. Melega was asked to take over.

“I was honored and I agreed. My family are Mathis, who settled in Bass River in the 1700s. And it felt like home,” he shared.

Winning a grant from the state to showcase New Jersey’s first surfcraft, Melega set off to build a replica of Lisiewski’s famed board. He spent much of the winter in the workshop, covered in sawdust, recreating an 80-year-old relic. The board is 12-foot long and 5 inches thick, entirely hand carved from cedar and weighing over 100 pounds. It’s constructed of 22 pieces of wood, all clamped, bent, and held together with 450 brass screws.

“The hardest part was redesigning something with sparse plans that very few people had constructed since its inception 80 years ago. I had a lot of difficulty flipping the monster over just to work on the next step,” Melega admitted.

It gave him a lot of appreciation for what these pioneers did, Lisiewski in New Jersey and Blake in the bigger world of surfing.

“Blake was an inventor, writer and vegan, but firstly a true waterman. His batten and rib-designed boards made Waikiki natives switch from the 8-to10-foot, 100-pound solid wooden boards being used to a 12-foot, 70-pound board that you could paddle significantly faster and made the sport much more applicable to the masses. His friend, the godfather of the sport, Duke Kahanamoku, riding the boards helped share his craft.”

As Melega explains, Blake’s design got real traction when the Red Cross produced them as lifesaving devices. But that article was the catalyst for the first surfboard builders in the U.S.

As Melega neared completion of the board, he was excited to bring the board to Lisiewski to show him. Unfortunately, Richard’s health was failing. Mike Lisiewski had to postpone the meeting for his father.

Richard, who is a member of the East Coast and New Jersey Surfing Halls of Fame, passed in late January at the age of 90. Melega never got to show him the board. It was bittersweet.

“Late night rushing to finish the project, laying the last sheet of cloth on the board to seal it, I got deep chills and left the kookbox covered for the night. The next day I got the news Rich had passed on. I knew he would have loved it. He loved to see anything a backyard shaper made,” said Melega.

A traditional “paddle out” memorial will be held for Lisiewski this summer.

The board is on display at the Tuckerton Seaport and will be traveling to vintage surfboard-themed competitions up and down the East Coast this summer, a piece of functional history that people can experience first-hand – meaning, they can try to ride it.

“To finish this board after four months of head scratching, hemming and hawing, and hearing that it can’t be done, applying a gloss coat of eco-friendly resin was the most satisfying feeling I’ve felt, short of finding my soulmate” (which happened at the same time), said Melega.

“Riding this monster in chest-high waves at Wooden Jetty (Holgate, LBI South End) felt like blasting through swell on a battleship; there is no stopping it! I kicked out of sliding down my first wave – there’s no fin, mind you – and the board kept going at full speed for 20 yards.”

Richard and Pauline Lisiewski, longtime owners of Brighton Beach Surf Shop in Holgate, circa 1940s. (Courtesy of: Michael Lisiewski)
Greg Melega's replica, at mid-built stage. (Courtesy of: Greg Melega)
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